Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Discreet apocalypse: other fantasies, fantasies of the other

* He was on his way to DC, and a bit ahead of time. So he decided to pick up something to eat. It was not his first time in this Chinatown bakery. This time, though, he was quite struck by the sullen beauty of the Chinese baker.

* Although he was more used to and comfortable with the back seats, he decided against it, and sat at the very front of the bus. Then she came and sat right next to him. He thought of his wife for a brief second and turned his attention to her bare neck. They stared at each other for an endless minute. He could not think of anything else. He caught her eyes in the rear view mirror a few times after that.

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Monday, November 20, 2006

Imagined Communities


Just finished reading Benedict Andersons impressive study of nationalism. A lot of critical distance in his book. A study thoroughly conducted from astonishing heights of intelligence. A truly impressive piece of scholarly research.
An expert on Southeast Asia, Anderson refutes the hypothesis of a purely European origin of nationalism. According to him, nation-ness [nation, nationality, nationalism] is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time. It is the result of the destruction of the old communities by the new conceptions of space and time that appeared during the era that Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi called the Great Transformation, from the late 18th century. From the ashes of the old world-system, the nation was born, i.e an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. The emergence of capitalism, the spread of printing, colonialism and the new states of the Third World provide many elements of explanation and reflection, whose role is insightfully analyzed in this brilliant, erudite, sometimes ironic, comparative study, which reads from cover to cover with an irresistible feeling of intellectual pleasure.


Have yet to finish Race, Nation, Classe by E. Balibar et Wallerstein.

First poem of the cycle almost finished.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Why economists love empires: from 'The Economist' print edition

"Why economists love empires

In a speech last year at Oxford University, Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, caused a stir in his homeland by noting a few "beneficial consequences" of India's years under British rule, including its free press, its civil service and its "notion" of the rule of law. But he also pointed out that India, one of the world's biggest economies in 1700, was impoverished by the time the British left.

However mixed empire's legacy in India, imperialism has recently provided a rich feast for economists. Their interest lies not just in totting up the balance sheet of colonial rule—although that can be fascinating. They are after even bigger game: an explanation of why some countries grow rich and others do not. Of the many proposed solutions to that riddle (technology, geography, the Protestant ethic) the current favourite is rather bland in the abstract: "institutions". In rich economies institutions—meaning the formal laws and unwritten rules that govern society—function rather well on the whole. In poor ones they don't. That much is indisputable.

What is tricky is showing that good institutions are a cause of economic progress rather than a by-product of it. You cannot run controlled experiments in which a particular institution is randomly imposed on some countries, but not on others, in order to compare how they fare. Or at least economists can't. But perhaps imperialists can. Maybe the colonial adventures of the past provide the natural experiments economists need to put their theories to the test.

The imperial powers certainly generated a lot of institutional variety, sprinkling Spanish vassalage, British indirect rule and American paternalism across the globe. But was this variation random? Surely not. Imperialists vied to plant their flag in the most lucrative spots, wherever the spices were rich or the sugar cane tall. Thus a conundrum remains: if, say, America's former colonies have prospered compared with Spain's, was this because America bequeathed the best institutions, or because it found the most promising areas of the world to colonise?

What is ingenious about the recent economic studies of empire is how they overcome this problem. Imperial institutions may determine prosperity, but the reverse may also be true. The trick is to find some third factor that is securely linked to institutions, but entirely unconnected to economic success. Such factors are called "instrumental variables", because the economist is interested in them not for themselves, but for what they tell him about something else.

That name, however, now seems quite ironic. Because all of the fun in the recent spate of papers is in the instruments themselves. Economists are outdoing each other with ever more curious instruments, ranging from lethal mosquitoes to heirless maharajahs, or, most recently, wind speeds and sea currents.

Guam, which became a Spanish colony in the 17th century and an American one at the end of the 19th, was discovered in 1521 after winds and swells carried Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese-born explorer, to its shores. In a recent study of 80 such islands, all but one of which eventually fell under the imperial yoke, James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College argue that winds and currents dictated which islands were colonised when. The early colonialists went where their sails took them; only after steamships became the norm in the 19th century could they travel against the wind.

As a result, some islands were colonised early, some late, for reasons that had much to do with meteorology, and rather little to do with any other intrinsic attractions the islands might offer. The two authors show that the accessible islands, which lay on natural sailing routes, have prospered relative to the others. They put this down in part to the longer period these islands spent under colonial rule. A century as a colony is worth a 40% increase in today's GDP, they argue.

But as the authors point out, this striking result disguises a more disturbing fact. On many islands the original population was decimated, or worse, by European contact. After the Spanish colonised Puerto Rico in 1505, the native population fell from 60,000 to 1,500 within 30 years. The island may have since prospered, but the original islanders did not.

The study paints the British as relatively benign rulers compared with the Iberians. But instruments can cut both ways. Lakshmi Iyer of Harvard has used the technique to reveal some unhappy consequences of the Raj that might have made Mr Singh's Oxford audience squirm. The British, she points out, did not wrest direct control of India all at once. From 1848 to 1856, for example, the governor-general pursued a "doctrine of lapse", taking charge of states whenever the native ruler died without an heir. These states, then, came under British rule as a result of patrilineal misfortune, not economic potential. Ms Iyer shows that such areas had fewer schools, clinics and roads as a result of British rule. The effects lingered into the 1980s.

Once just an obscure statistical method, instrumental variables are now popping up all over the place. Daniel Hamermesh, a labour economist at the University of Texas, has joked about the "instrument police", who patrol empirical economics, forever suspicious that causality may run both ways. Indeed, "reverse causality", which was once a frustrating problem, is now seen as a chance to demonstrate ingenuity. Instruments have brought colour to the study of institutions, and sharpened the debate over colonialism, without really resolving it. But whatever the claims of empire, the instrumental variable now enjoys an almost imperial grip on the imagination of economists."

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Personal decadence and its physical consequences

He had narrowly escaped an all-day business seminar at which he had felt immediately, irremediably out of place. He wished he had slept instead. She had dragged him there of course.
After a brief chat with M. Choi (whom he could hardly remember), he was feeling somewhat relieved that this nuisance of a man was moving to DC the following week. Sitting next to him: J. Yung. He had seen her before. She looked familiar. And certainly very hot as well (perhaps that's why she looked familiar). She reminded him of Hsu Chi. Must have been her lips.
He thought about the night before:
“Yesterday, dinner with R. and S. L. at an upper west side restaurant. OK food. Was recovering from Thursday night, as I still am, today.” (banality of the notation, he thought right away)
Thursday had been quite a decadent night, now that he was thinking about it. He had half expected this to happen when K. called, out of the blue. He was always pleasantly surprised at the odd regularity of their “relationship”. They seemed to maintain a continuous erotic distance.
Not on that night though. That night was sensibly different. He had spent a good amount of time with his hand down her pants. Then got into a weird (but enviable) “ryo te hana” situation (with H.), to use an exaggerated expression. He was surprised he still knew some Japanese. He had downed a few shots with her. Couldn’t quite remember her name. Came back home around 5 AM. Drunk and sick. Predictably. Predictable.
It was good to see Daisuke though. The name of the manager escaped him. Too bad. He was a nice guy as well.
Been having a major pain in the neck, quite literally, since then. Physical aftermath of this minor moral fall.

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Monday, November 6, 2006

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Taking time

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Taking some time with N.
Kinda fun to play the tourist with him. Strange but pleasant (comfortable) position of exteriority, of “outsider within”. Went to the MOMA with him today. Got to see the “Out of Time” exhibition. Remarkable Cai Guo-Qiang: “Transient Rainbow”. Traces/ruins of his exploding performance. The impacts form a nice (aesthetic) pattern.

Scepticism of N. for Twombly of course.
A superb Rothko on the third floor as well (should go there more often): “Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea”.

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Met his ex. and her girlfriend, Lelia. Interesting.
Then saw J., back from Lisbon, at Koryodong. Charming company. As ever.
Headed to K-town. And had a few beers at Players...
On Sunday, went to the huge opening at PS1, Was mostly impressed by the John Latham retrospective. Saw C. L. then had dinner in a Greek restaurant (Greek neighbourhood) in Queens, with J. and his wife, B. Rest of the weekend, uneventful (whatever that means).

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Science of Sleep

Went to see the latest Michel Gondry film last night with E ... Was supposed to see The Departed, which was sold out.

I liked this Science of Sleep a lot, for both objective (if there is such a thing) and personal reasons. Deep resonances with the sentimental surrealism of the ensemble

Was quite a throwback to the days when I seeing N., or non-seeing, in a way. Was an odd relationship. Also reminds me of K., now married, with kids. Seems like a lifetime ago.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Discreet apocalypses: a few minor fictions

Rangements of private stories/fantasies.

* The first time, they had to fuck each other's brains out. Now, they were discussing Wittgenstein's late work. Somehow, they felt more intimate this way.

* He met her on the street, in Paris. It was spring. She was fifteen and drunk. She came to him and asked: "Do you believe in nothingness?". Puzzled, he took her to his place. He made coffee, which she didn't drink. He enjoyed her conversation and her fragile, naive companionship for a couple of weeks. Then he decided to write a novel.

* A tall Asian, presumably Korean, or perhaps Mongolian, woman. She sat in front of him in the New York underground. And closed her eyes. When she opened them, she stared at him and he could see they were bloodshot. She reminded him of a beautiful photographer he had met years ago. Maybe it was the same person. They nodded and he got off the train at Union Square.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Architectural aggressions. 72nd and Sarah Sze.

A small place crashed right next door the building where I live. Feels funny to write that. E.'s brother, F., calle. M. H. too. And S. L. and P. E., obviously a bit concerned. Heard the impact, which I thought was dynamite used in the construction site on 1st. Didn't realized what it was until people called and I turned on the tv. Strange incident.

Saw J. L. again. Was nice seeing her after such a long time. Don't know how I could let this much time pass... Her pregnancy definitely suits her.

Then visited Sarah Sze's studio. Impossibly articulate artist. Labyrinthine compositions in and of space, with mundane objects.

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Friday, October 6, 2006

Line 6. Recent glimpse of poetry

“The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotation are the same.”

Elizabeth Bishop, “Conversation”

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Monday, September 18, 2006

Discreet apocalypse: Lara

He met her at the Starbucks on 75th street. He was working on his novel and was far from expecting this somewhat Baudelerian moment.
She was reading Lord of the Flies. He couldn’t think of anything to say for a couple of minutes. And didn’t come up with anything special in the way of pickup lines, not that he was lacking imagination. He spoke to her for a while, right after his wife called. It was too late, he thought. How would we... how could we meet again, at any rate?
She was quite an extraordinary kind of beauty. Her hair was blonde, too blonde. She was a big deal, but not one for which he was ready. He signed out and didn’t ask for her number.

“Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son oeil, ciel livide où germe l'ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair... puis la nuit ! - Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité ?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici ! trop tard ! jamais peut-être !
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais !”

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Manga: Sanctuary

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Art: Ikegami Ryoichi
Story: Fumimura Sho

A political epic about two ambitious young men determined to change the fate of the Japanese nation.This atypical crime-meets-politics thriller was serialized in Big Comic Superior from 1990 to 1995, then released into 12 volumes by Shogakukan. It was collected into nine volumes and published in America by Viz Graphics from 1995 to 1997. Sanctuary was a best-selling title in Japan, and it inspired a live action film. It is also one of the books that has paved the marketplace for adult manga (seinen) in the United States. It was published in France by Kabuto.

Hojo Akira and Asami Chiaki are two men with a master plan. They intend to change the world they live in and the way things have been going. No less. They have chosen two different but parallel paths. One walks in the shadows as a yakuza oyabun (a mafia don), the other in the bright lights of politics. As they rise to the top of Japanese society, where they aspire to find and found a “sanctuary” of their own, they have to face ruthless enemies and formidable factions. Alliances are formed, wars are declared, in both the underworld and the Parliament (called the Diet). Why they want to literally reform the country remains as obscure as their common past in Southeast Asia in the early stages of the story. Progressively revealed, the mystery shrouding their origins adds extra layers of meaning and psychological depth to the characters, whose dimensions take on tragic proportions and are underscored by the realism of Ikegami’s art.
The grand scale of Hojo and Asami’s ambition is clearly shown by the developments of the plot. The pair creates an expanding geography of power: from inside Japan (from the Kanto region to remote areas like Okinawa) to foreign lands like Hong Kong, Russia, and the US, forming, in the process, networks of (virile) loyalty that conquers and converts diverse opponents: brutal mob enforcer Tokai, or mastermind Ibuki, to name a few.
Constructed mostly around Hojo and Asami, the story is distributed into a few subplots involving other yakuzas and politicians, all equally tough (strangely, cops stay in the background and never assume critical importance in the narrative). Those minor, or rather supporting characters, usually appear as powerful antagonists belonging to the old order, but have either hit a dead end or found themselves at a turning point in their lives. After being defeated, countered, or simply convinced, they join forces with Hojo and Asamis side, who represent a new order founded on youth and strength rather than tradition and hierarchy.
Far from a manichean good-vs-evil conflict, the war waged by the two young men brings into questions the legitimacy of the power that be, not power itself. One of the reasons why they are after supremacy, is that they see it is as a sacred space, a sanctuary precisely, not as a factor of tyranny per se. That established politicians and yakuza dons are corrupted by this power is not relevant here. Hojo and Asami challenge them because they abuse their authority to subject “the people” into apathy, and turn them into puppets, drifting from (what they think of as) their original purpose: governing for the sake of the sovereign good, which has no moral implications here.

In Sanctuary, Ikegami and Fumimura (also and better known as Buronson) draw a fascinating portrait of a very ambiguous Japan, sometimes dangerously close to reality, where the stakes are breathtakingly high, the design grand, and the characters impossibly charismatic and heroic. Ikegami's art lyrically emphasizes their grandeur with cinematic techniques like low-angle shot look-alike graphics (cf. illustrations above) and creates an intense sense of “cool”. This mise-en-scène is a subtle exploration of the extreme rigidity of a complex hierarchical system based on conservatism, and the relationships of the country with the outside world.

The only flaw of the manga is the many ways in which it projects an unrepentant machismo. While it cleverly shows the intricacies and seductions of power, it is also an uncritical glorification of masculinity, enshrined in a dynamic if slightly hieratic form of realism. Compared with men, women are pretty lightweight, and excluded from the scene of power. Throughout the story, they seem to be reduced to the parts of attendants, sexual for the most part (and mostly provide their “services” to hard-as-nails side-kick Tokai).

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Really, how many times does Kyoko, Hojo’s love interest, have to be naked, taking a shower, a bath, or about to be raped (sexual assault is infinitely possible and always imminent in the manga) ? Sigh. That’s where Sanctuary finds its limits, especially when compared with the similar title, Heat, graced by the presence of strong female characters. Having said this, in the context of Japanese politics and yakuza mobsters, women don’t really have a conspicuous role either. From this perspective, the manga can be viewed as somehow faithful to reality. At any rate, as the story rolls along, this never seems to be a major detraction.

This manga is unquestionably a masterpiece, one of the best graphic novels this reviewer has ever read (and reread many times). It ranks easily as one of the most enthralling stories in any category.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Art and destruction

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In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg came to Willem de Kooning with a strange request: he asked him for a drawing. Rauschenberg, who was the young rising star of abstract expressionism at the time, brought it back to his studio and then, armed with a handful of good old erasers, he started rubbing it out. A laborious process of erasure that was to take months.

The Erased de Kooning Drawing by Rauschenberg is now exhibited at the Museum of San Francisco.

Eventually, by destroying the drawing he created another work, one with the symbolic authorship of his signature but whose significance and very existence is absolutely relative to the now in absentia de Kooning drawing. The erasure is the most paradoxical artistic act. It is an appropriation of the work and quite literally, it is a sacrifice. It is a (the?) work of art insofar as it bears the trace, the hint of a creative gesture and the destructive gesture of this gesture. This iconoclastic gesture cannot be represented: it constitutes, contructs the art work, which it founds concomitantly as an event.

To Barbara Rose, who asked why he didn’t erase one of his own drawings, Rauschenberg humbly answered that this would have reduced his drawing to nothing. There is the difference: between the nothing that a Rauschenberg drawing would have been and the non-nothing that the Erased de Kooning Drawing by Rauschenberg is. The fervor of a gesture. An act of faith.

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